Travelers Guilt

Planes, trains and buses. Sometimes you’re packed in like a sardine, other times you have half a plane to yourself. In route to Malaysia.

In the developed world many of us are very fortunate to have the means and the opportunity to travel, both domestically and internationally. I could write pages on the benefits of traveling to different cultures and becoming an international citizen, but that’s not what has my brain cranking. No, what has me pondering what it means to be a traveler is something I’ve deemed “travelers guilt”, let me explain. During my time in Asia I spent a lot of time talking with locals, learning about their culture and lifestyle and sharing mine. Both in Nepal and Myanmar I talked about my travels to many different countries and cities and about all of what I’d seen. For most people in the western world, you may be jealous of the things I’ve done and seen, but the fact that I’m doing them is not a surprise to you. Most of you probably know a dozen other people who have taken off on a several month long journey (or longer), to distant far off lands.

Christmas festivities ibn the Seoul airport, complete with a woman singing songs from Frozen, in Korean.

Most people in the developing world don’t have this luxury. Life focuses on family, friends, home, farm, school and the essentials. Many people in SE Asia and Nepal have never been out of their own country, and some may not have ever left their districts/regions. Traveling for pleasure is just not something they think about or that is part of their culture, so to talk to world travelers opens up a world of different experiences and possibilities. So far, this is all good, sharing different experiences and ideas.
Now the guilt. Both in Nepal and Myanmar the question came up about how much it costs me to travel; hostels, airplanes, buses, visas, etc, there are a lot of different expenses that go into traveling internationally. I’m a fairly thrifty traveler, but flights still cost hundreds of dollars, visas upwards of $150 in some countries. My new friends asked me about all these things and I wasn’t going to lie or sugar coat anything. But as I recited some of the numbers I realized, even my cheap $400 flight to Asia was an amount of money that they could live off for a month, it’s an amount that takes them some time to wrap their head around, and we spend it merely for pleasure.

Our adopted Burmese family, they invited us to their family picnic, gave us beer and food and did out makeup, because…

Teaching my Nepalese kids about America and world geography.

I began to feel very guilty and extremely self continuous about my travels, and spent my several days of transit to Hawaii (via Thailand and Korea) pondering what this concept really meant. Should I not be traveling and instead just donate my extra money to charities, should I travel but share my money more freely with as many locals as possible, or is this just the nature of economic inequality? In the end I came back to the advantages of international travel for our society and individuals. Awareness, understanding and sharing our cultures brings tolerance and in my opinion makes us all better and more compassionate people, but that’s just my opinion on how I travel and what I want to get out of travel.

Wedding in the village of Shishaghat. Family, friends, food, dancing and everyone (even me) is invited.

But this doesn’t mean “travelers guilt” hasn’t changed how I travel. Since there are huge economic disparities between the western world and developing countries I think those of us do have a responsibility to do the little things to help those who need it most. Don’t stay in big corporate hotels instead find a small B&B or guesthouse. Buy from street vendors and small shops instead of big commercial operations (guess this is true for the US too). And even though you have more money than the locals don’t flaunt it, be respectful. I’ve started trying to spread my money around when I can, but not spending more extravagantly than I normally would, just being conscious of where my money goes. I’ve seen way too many people throwing money around and treating the economically less fortunate as slaves, which just disgusts me.

Shopping the street markets of Yangon, Myanmar for fruits and veggies.

Most of you reading this were born with a similar level of privilege that I was, and I feel it’s our duty to be responsible citizens and try to help those wonderful hard working folks who offer more than a simple product, but a story and friendship (I guess this is some degree of socialism for mankind). I welcome different thoughts, opinions, and arguments for/against what I’ve written above. These are just my ponderings and musings and I’d love to hear other opinions or if anyone else has struggled with this topic. For now, I’ll keep on traveling, but am a little more aware of how I do it and how much of a privilege it is. Thanks to ask those who have shared this journey with me, opened their lives to me and whom have helped me grow along the way.

So no matter how you travel, enjoy the ride. The people and places are what make the experience, not how much it costs.

2 thoughts on “Travelers Guilt

  1. Barbara Sloop

    Big time travel, so much to learn, so much learned. Each culture visited enriches you and them. You have absorbed how each makes a living in meager circumstances, and thrived. There is a lesson. Many have only the essentials to exist, not burdened with too much “stuff”. I plead guilty. Backpacks bring reality on what we really need. That is something my family enjoyed, as well as running white water rivers – for 35 years. So many cultures know how to share in a way of pleasure and unselfishness. This makes for a terrific experience. No one takes, giving rules the day. I think of our travels and what we learned. The only guilt would be not reaching out and learning from others. Enjoy the people, drink it in!!! I love your Blog, keep it going. The world is a banquet and most people are starving to death! P. S. You know Steve Acarregui, He is my grandson. Small world.

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